The Best Place to Live in Ireland
‘The Irish Times’ is running a competition to find the best place to live in Ireland, and we want your help. Our judges explain how to pitch your place and what they’ll be looking for. Below, journalists give examples of the kinds of pitches that could help your place win.
WHERE’S THE BEST place to live in Ireland? An Irish Times search for the ultimate place to live starts today, and we’re inviting people who believe they’ve found it to nominate it in our competition. The place could be a town or city suburb, a village or remote rural spot, a tiny community halfway up a mountain, a street, a road or a housing estate – anywhere you feel supremely lucky to have landed.
The reason could be the great neighbours, the sense of community, the vibrant social life, the ease with which your children have made friends, the beautiful scenery, the parks and playgrounds, the great local facilities – or something else entirely.
I like the part of north Dublin I live in. Sometimes I look at the greener grass of the neighbouring suburb, which has a good choice of restaurants, a seafront and a great deli, but I know that many of the people who live around me thrive on our area’s community spirit and on the fact that people on our road take an interest in their neighbours.
If you’re living in your ideal place, and believe it could win, go to irishtimes.com/bestplaceand tell us in no more than 500 words why it’s the best place to live in Ireland.
To help us form a clearer picture, the website has questions about everything from the local schools to the local environment. But don’t be put off if you live in an area that doesn’t meet all these criteria.
Ultimately, it’s the strength of your pitch that will count with the judges, of whom I am one. The others are the psychologist Maureen Gaffney, the architect Paul Keogh, Gerard O’Neill of Amárach Research and my colleague Frank McDonald, The Irish Times’s Environment Editor.
As my fellow judges explain, we all have different ideas of what makes a good place to live. For me it’s a feeling of ease that you’ve arrived and can’t do any better. For Maureen Gaffney, the best place to live is one where you feel you and your family can flourish. Frank McDonald, a committed urbanite, says it’s a street designed for people rather than a road designed for cars. Gerard O’Neill, a “romantic pretending to be a realist”, says it’s about the people as well as the place.
The winner will be announced in June. The Irish Times will mark the accolade with a plaque and a short film for irishtimes.com.
Here’s what our judges consider important.
Maureen Gaffney, psychologist
For me, the best place to live is one where you feel you and your family can flourish: where you feel safe and happy, competent and fulfilled, free to be your best self; where you feel you matter and what you do matters; where you belong. Some of the elements needed to make that possible are easy to identify: access to work, to good public services, to sports, art, entertainment and shopping; and to opportunities to be of real service to others.
But other quality-of-life issues are harder to measure. The most interesting question for me in judging the best place to live in Ireland is how we will factor in attachment to place as a criterion, because I believe it is crucial to our sense of belonging. That intimate sense of place is bound up inextricably with how we feel about where we live.
Of course, you can measure some aspects of belonging: the social bonds that tie people together in networks of friendship and support. This includes groups that depend on each other to get things done: to organise sports, arts, fundraising or volunteering or just to have a good time. It also includes more formal networks, like residents’ groups, that link the community to those who should or could help them – to local and national government, say.
But that is not the whole story. In the course of my work, I have been in many deprived communities that seem to have little enough going for them: no beautiful open spaces, no theatres, no inspiring public buildings. Sometimes, they seem to have little in the way of social capital. And yet the people living there will often have a very powerful sense of their own place and community. They love where they live. They would never want to move, and even if they have moved to a better physical environment they often pine for the old community, for “home”. This is where they know everybody and, even more importantly, where they are “known”.
Measuring that will be harder.
Paul Keogh, architect
In The Architecture of Happiness, the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton describes the deep-seated need for our homes to provide both physical and psychological sanctuary: “Although this house may lack solutions to a great many of its occupants’ ills, its rooms nevertheless give evidence of a happiness to which architecture has made a distinctive contribution.”
For me, this happiness can be found in a house or an apartment, in the city or the country. The essentials are similar: well- proportioned rooms and spaces; good sunshine and daylight; pared-down and uncluttered interiors; well-designed furniture and fittings; a space outside for sitting and for planting.
But when it comes to “where”, the issues become more complex: the ideal is a balance between places where one can enjoy the best quality of life and where one can do so in an ecologically sound environment. Is this a one-off house in the country? A semi-D in the suburbs? A town-centre terrace? Or an inner-city apartment?
Most evidence points to urban living as the most responsible choice. In the US, the lifestyles in cities like Boston and New York have been shown to generate half the carbon emissions of the national average, a statistic corroborated by research on European cities such as Barcelona and Paris. But in recent UK surveys, the ideal for more than 80 per cent of people is a house in the country or a small village, though we can’t all live in those.
In assessing the best place to live, it seems to me there are two fundamental questions to be answered. First, where are the places that balance a high personal quality of life with the ethics of sustainable living – social, economic and environmental?
Second, where are places that combine the attributes people find attractive in suburban and rural locations – conviviality, identity, safety, continuity and closeness to nature – with those only urban places can provide: convenient access to education, health, leisure, employment and culture?
Gerard O’Neill, statistician
I’m a romantic pretending to be a realist. (It’s the reverse for women, by the way.) So if you ask me what makes a great place to live I’ll likely point to local amenities, the unemployment rate or even the crime level. Certainly such things shape what makes one place more habitable than another, and can be measured and compared reassuringly logically and objectively.
But if you ask me what kind of place I would like to live in, well, that’s different. And it’s personal. We each collect impressions of places and people from childhood onwards. These seep into our subconscious, from where they shape our likes and dislikes about the new places and people we encounter.
What’s more, we mostly collect good impressions (filtering out the bad), which is why we remember that the sun always shone when we were children and, even as adults, remember the good bits about our holidays and forget the bad.
I have a lifetime of such experiences, of course. From growing up in Northern Ireland to studying and working in the East End of London to settling down and raising a family in Dublin. What stands out about the places I really liked? The people come first, whether it was the neighbours, friends and cousins in my home town who looked out for one another or the East Enders who welcomed my wife and me into their community in the 1980s.
People make places just as places make people, and even the toughest of places can be softened by the bonds of neighbourliness and community, as I witnessed myself, growing up with a 25 per cent unemployment rate.
So I will be judging the submissions in terms of what each tells me about the people as well as the place: the romantic as well as the realistic.
Frank McDonald, journalist
The best place to live is on a street that’s designed for people rather than on a road designed for cars. As well as creating a safer environment for children to play, a street also encourages more contact between neighbours and thus a greater sense of community; the popularity of Coronation Street shows we still hanker after these “old” values.
Diversity is also important. Many of our suburbs are ghettoised, even in middle-class areas – as exemplified by the gated-communities phenomenon. An ideal community should contain young, old and those in between; well-off and poorer people, students, foreigners.
The place should also bear evidence of being loved and looked-after. By this, I don’t mean it should be prettified with window boxes and hanging baskets: it should be relatively free of obvious signs of antisocial behaviour, such as graffiti, littering or shabby public spaces.
Ideally, it should also have a range of recreational options, for both active and passive uses, as well as a variety of shops (not just an out-of-town Tesco!) and services.
I can think of several towns in Ireland that would score well in this category as well as many that wouldn’t.
The judges Who they are
* Dr Maureen Gaffney is adjunct professor of psychology and society at University College Dublin. Her book Flourishing is published by Penguin Ireland.
* Paul Keogh is the founding partner of Paul Keogh Architects, which specialises in urban design, architecture and interiors. He was president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland for the 2010-2011 term.
* Gerard O’Neill is chairman of Amárach Research and a cofounder of Hireland.ie, the job-creation initiative. His book 2016: A New Proclamation for a New Generation was published recently by Mercier Press.
* Frank McDonald has been Environment Editor of The Irish Times since 2000 and is the author of The Destruction of Dublin, The Builders (with Kathy Sheridan) and Chaos at the Crossroads (with James Nix).
* Edel Morgan is an Irish Times journalist who has written extensively about property and planning, including on her blog, Home Truths, irishtimes.com/blogs/home-truths
How to enter
Go to irishtimes.com/bestplaceand “pitch your place” in not more than 500 words.
For examples of the kind of thing we’re looking for, read John Waters, Conor Pope, Rosemary Mac Cabe and more below
Argue, gush, convince: sample pitches for the Best Place to Live in Ireland
We are inviting you to write 500 words on what you think is Ireland’s most liveable location. Here’s what some people we know wrote about their favourite places.
CORK CITY: ‘Its intimacy is to be cherished. The convenience of a city with the human scale of a town is what makes the city stand apart’
When you’re from Cork it’s hard to be humble. The biggest county, the tallest building, the longest coastline, the second-largest natural harbour in the world. If self-regarding pomposity were an Olympic sport, I’d like to think we’d be world champions.
As if our heads weren’t swollen enough, when Lonely Planet came calling, it labelled Cork one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2010. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s how the guide described the city: “Cork is at the top of its game right now: sophisticated, vibrant and diverse, while still retaining its friendliness, relaxed charm and quick-fire wit.” Rumours that the author is from Knocknaheeny are without foundation.
But there are those who say Cork’s obsession with defining itself in competition with, say, Dublin is a classic sign of an inferiority complex. Peel beneath the fatty layers of self-trumpeting bravado, they might say, and you’ll find a gnawing anxiety about its second-city status.
Seán Ó Faoláin railed at times against the small-town provincialism and the “damp dark miasmic valley”. Paul Durcan wrote about the city being as “intimate and homicidal as a little Marseilles”. But Cork’s intimacy is something to be cherished. The convenience of a city with the human scale of a town is what makes the city stand apart.
After all, it’s people who make a neighbourhood, a village, a town or a city. The social fabric that binds a community together – running into friends, familiar faces in the shops, simple, everyday human contact – is still firmly in place, at a time when it’s frayed and stretched in much smaller places.
A stroll along the spacious, redesigned main thoroughfare and its connecting arteries of smaller streets is a pleasure. You do not feel bullied or harassed on the city streets.
At a time when life is being sucked out of the centres of countless towns and cities as a result of poor planning and out-of-town shopping centres, Cork’s retail core is in remarkably good shape. It feels vibrant, modern and alive.
The city has challenges. The eyesore of the docklands needs to be tackled, and some of the poorer communities are badly scarred by neglect. The city still has its back turned to the incredible amenity that is the harbour (the second largest in the world, remember?)
Ultimately, Cork has a way of winning people over. Even Ó Faoláin mellowed with age. When he wrote his memoirs at the end of his life, he couldn’t help admiring the city’s “quiet sense of self-possession . . . It’s something that one can only speak of as an air or a tradition, indigenous, time-established, as old as Shandon’s bells.”
Spoken like a true, modest, Corkman. CARL O'BRIEN
CO MEATH: ‘Having endured the wind, the frost and the mud, the reward is now’
For all the urbanites who lament their desire to engage with nature, very few actually move to the country. Yes, there are those lavish magazine articles featuring wealthy couples who up sticks to restore some decaying mansion on 500 hectares.
For us ordinary earners, though, having a rural address may not mean we live in the countryside. It may mean living in a badly designed estate on the outskirts of a small rural town, now bypassed by miles of motorways and enough roundabouts to guarantee hours of confusion.
And for every city type who moves to the countryside in pursuit of a dream, hundreds if not thousands of rural natives announce an intention of moving to the city – and they do. Nothing would induce me to do so.
The “real”, ever-shrinking countryside still experiences utter darkness and silence, with no hint of roaring traffic. Nothing compares with the mist slowly lifting off the river or early-morning birdsong ending the night. However crazy it sounds, the only way to fully enjoy the upheaval of a storm is from within a farm outbuilding.
The winters here are harsh: the mud turns to glue, the kitchen smells of damp horse blankets and there seems in late November no end to the darkness that is so appealing on a balmy June night.
Having endured the cold, the wind, the frost and all that mud, the reward is now: watching the leaves return, the hedges flesh out, the fields recover. No matter how many hares bound across your path, each new sighting remains as exciting as the first. It is the same with the owls. Badgers and foxes make regular guest appearances, as does an otter. It is surprising how much closer you can get, if you are quiet enough, to deer on horseback.
A trio of birds of prey soar high across our fields. My small wooded area is alive, particularly at night. The dogs can bark without upsetting any neighbours, and although country dogs have no more freedom than their city cousins, they have a wider range of activities and sensations and are never bored.
There is a privilege about having my horses with me; this couldn’t be if I lived in the city. Early morning from about mid-March to September is a joy.
Whatever about the ugly modern developments, rural Ireland remains well marked by traces of ancient, far more sophisticated settlement; the archaeology of Co Meath is among the richest inventories in the State. Royal Tara endures despite the idiot planning.
It is the county of Newgrange – my home overlooks it – and Knowth, Loughcrew and Fourknocks and Bective, Trim Castle and the theatre of the Battle of the Boyne.True, Meath lacks the majesty of a dramatic coastline, and there are no mountains, which I miss as much as I miss the sea. But then few places are completely perfect. Almost is close enough. EILEEN BATTERSBY
STONEYBATTER, DUBLIN 7: On a sunny day in the Batter, the residents come out to play
Stoneybatter is, according to Redrawing Dublin, the county’s most densely populated area. It has no parks or green spaces; 95 per cent of the ground you walk on is concrete or asphalt. By today’s living standards, the homes in Stoneybatter – terraced houses or bungalows packed on to labyrinthine streets – would not pass planning muster. They are too close and too small; few have gardens – or even yards in which to store next week’s refuse.
But on a sunny day in the Batter, the residents come out to play. Deckchairs appear in front of houses as if from nowhere, and families sit outside smoking, drinking tea or gently admonishing the neighbours’ children until the sun goes down.
In summertime, Billy Edwards’s rose garden, tucked at the bottom of Oxmantown Road, erupts with multicoloured blooms; Phoenix Park, 10 minutes’ walk from any Stoneybatter address, is full of Irish and non-Irish, families and nonfamilies, runners, walkers and sun-worshippers.
Then there are the places that are as much a part of Stoneybatter as the red-brick facades of the houses themselves: Maureen’s, where its namesake owner sits behind her counter, day in and day out; Lilliput Stores, with its array of fast-selling sandwiches and soups; L Mulligan Grocer, the gastropub with the plentiful supply of board games; Top to Toe, the beauty salon on Aughrim Street with the neon sign; and Thunders, the bakery on Prussia Street that does Dublin’s best iced log, but “only every second week”.
Blow-ins like myself might expect the long-time residents – old Dublin folks, the likes of whom empty the contents of their dinner plates on to the road for the birds and think nothing of hammering on your window to check if it’s more securely fixed than their own – to be somewhat unhappy about this Stoneybatter takeover.
On the contrary: within days of moving in, they knew my name, my origins, my job – it wouldn’t be surprising if they had memorised my date of birth and PPS number.
The local newsagent regularly informs me of my presence in the newspaper, in the style of someone who expects a reaction; sometimes, when feeling charitable, I feign ecstatic surprise. Other times, I am in my pyjamas and eager to get home before someone spots me.Yes, despite the fact that I grew up in Straffan, Co Kildare, I consider Stoneybatter home. And it’s not the house: it’s my neighbour, who says hello when I cycle up the road at night; it’s Freddie, the newsagent, who calls me young lady and is very defensive about the Tesco/ newsagent price difference; it’s ice creams in the park and cold beers in Mulligan’s beer garden and roses in summer and the city on my doorstep. That’s home. ROSEMARY Mac CABE
DINGLE, CO KERRY: ‘Many of the key things that enrich life are present’
I first went to went to Dingle in 1966, to learn Irish. I stayed under the foot of Mount Eagle, in a little house and I brought a record player and one single: See Emily Play, by Pink Floyd. Whatever happened, I fell in love with the place, with the sound of the language, with the physical beauty, with the people; with the convivial welcome. And I kept going there.
At that time, I was heavily influenced by Sean Ó Riordáin, John McGahern, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin’s Fiche Bliain ag Fás. I did Irish as part of my degree in Cork and to come here, to go west, young man, was for me like discovering the holy grail. I loved that the native language was still on people’s lips, and with such wonderful cadence.
Later, I went on an enforced exile to Dublin for 25 years but I continued to visit and to develop my relationship with Dingle. And then, 15-16 years ago and with a young family, Nuala and I decided we would stay here. It was the best decision of my life. The seeds that had been sown in 1966 blossomed and grew. Intellectually, romantically and personally I had been drawn to this inspirational place.
It has a huge literary tradition, a great musical tradition, the sporting thing, and it has the food. Many of the key things that enrich life are present. And the music and all those other aspects are informed by the place itself. I like that there is just one school there, where everybody goes. And I like the intelligence and quick-wittedness of the people.
The physicality of the Dingle peninsula is breathtaking. It sits at the edge of the known world. I love the way the light changes. I love the isolation of it. I love the way the seasons change and the population with it. At other times of year, it’s a very cosmopolitan place. And at all times it is a microcosm of Ireland in 2012, containing so many of the concerns that affect our cities and towns: the empty houses, the emigration, the fear that you won’t be able to field a football team this year.
Yet there is something in the spirit of this place that is very empowering in this age of clamour.
Now lots of artists and musicians come here to perform in [the TV show] Other Voices. Many are city dwellers and many don’t even know where they are, yet they often say there is something powerful here.The best place in Ireland? It’s the best place in the world to live. PHILIP KING
BALLAGHADERREEN, CO ROSCOMMON: ‘Many neighbours are in their mid-90s. See Ballagh and live forever’
That dreaded question again. “Are you Patsy McGarry?” As I prepared once more to explain that I didn’t compile the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy or Cloyne reports, the lady responded to my timid “yes” by saying that her name was Rosemary and that she was a Ward who grew up in Ballaghaderreen. I changed, changed utterly.
Her father was a bank manager in the town, and her late mother used to say their move there was the best the family ever made. It was such a great place to raise a family. It was such a great place to grow up. Sing it, Rosemary.
She loved the town. Indeed she hopes to be there later in April for Annie Towey’s 96th birthday. Happy birthday, Mrs Towey. Rosemary marvelled that so many neighbours on Main Street were all now in their mid-90s. Con Moynihan, next door to Mrs Towey, Sonny Coen, Mrs Sharkey.
See Ballagh and live forever. On December 7th my own family will be 50 years there. We crossed galaxies from Mullen, a townland 10km to the east, in Co Roscommon, where McGarrys had lived since before there was time. Mullen has almost entirely disappeared beneath battalions of all-conquering conifers.
My parents moved to Ballaghaderreen because of education. Then, as now, it had a reputation for great schools. With six of us and another to come, schools were a major issue then. For us kids it was also a great place to grow up and, for our parents, a great place to raise the family. Then, as now, that was a community effort. Then, as now, crime was minimal and petty. Safe for families. Safe for everyone. Housing then too was affordable, the quality of life good and the people decent.
Ballagh still ticks all those boxes. Its primary school has an excellent reputation. (Of course! The principal is my sister Sinéad Mangan.) St Nathy’s College recently celebrated a tradition of providing 200 years of second-level education, a history with few equals for longevity or quality elsewhere in Ireland.
The town has state-of-the-art Gaelic and soccer pitches, a new rugby club, a very successful cricket club and some of the best coarse fishing in the west. It also has a busy nine-hole golf course. Walks are plentiful and scenic, with no traffic.
It also has a very active traditional music scene, and, for those into history, there’s more than 4,000 years of lore locally. And there’s Clarke’s pub, with some of the best steaks (seriously) in Ireland at Durkin’s, on the Square. A friend who retired to Ballaghaderreen in recent years after a lifetime in the UK is so busily involved with local activities she just exudes contentment.
The town is also centrally located, about 50km from Castlebar, Sligo and Carrick-on- Shannon, with their theatres and restaurants. The only drawback is unemployment, meaning many young people have to emigrate.
But, for those who stay, Ballagh is the undiscovered country from which no traveller really wants to return. PATSY McGARRY
GALWAY CITY: ‘It is a magical combination of urban and rural, artistic and earthy’
Everyone loves Galway. Even as a young child carelessly burrowing into John Joe Melody’s carefully constructed haystacks in the field behind our small house on the Dublin road leading into the city I knew I was lucky to come from this place. It was, after all, where other people wanted to come on their holidays to ride bumper cars and play bingo in Salthill.
But Galway was never just for holidays. It is quite possibly the only place outside their home where tribal folk from Cork and Dublin, with all their ridiculously misplaced geographical superiority, would be glad to live. because it is better than everywhere else. And everyone knows it.
It is a magical combination of urban and rural, artistic and earthy.
Salmon leap in the clear waters of the Corrib as it rages its way through the city.
Galway is the gateway to the rugged wilderness of Connemara and a short hop across the bay to the Aran Islands. It has a city centre small enough to cross on foot in less than 10 minutes yet busy enough to keep you distracted for days on end. It is just the right size to to make the making of definite plans unnecessary because you will inevitably bump into people you know at some point on a night out.
Some of the best pubs in the world are to be found on the Quay Street-Dominic Street axis, whether you’re looking for a frenetic trad session or the best pint of stout outside St James’s Gate. The city is also home to the best fish and chips in the country, and anyone who places Burdocks or Beshoffs in the top spot has clearly never been to McDonagh’s.
A steady stream of tourists lends the city a cosmopolitan air and keeps it buzzing year round while the students who are so much part of the fabric of the city, because of the central location of the university, give the place a uniquely youthful vibe.
It has stamped a much greater cultural footprint on the nation and the world at large than its small size would suggest, with Druid Theatre Company and Macnas finding enormous success on the international stage and the arts festival serving as a template for similar events all over the globe.
The absence of any fee-paying secondary schools means it has sidestepped the educational elitism that bedevils Cork and Dublin, and asking a Galway person where they went to school means just that and is not an inquiry into their social status.The new motorway, which was completed just minutes before the bubble burst and the troika came to town, brought the capital closer: Galway is now little more than two hours from Dublin. The elephants jostling for position in the room are the woolly jumper, the rain and the sense of inevitable superiority that comes from being the best, but it is still impossible not to love Galway. CONOR POPE
MAUGHEROW, CO SLIGO: ‘I have never heard anything like the roar of the Atlantic here in winter’
What I love most about this place is that it is haunted by everything and everyone that ever passed through it. I have been coming here for more than a decade, having bought a cottage in a hollow just before the Celtic Tiger found her stride. It was a ghost that brought me here: that of my father, who was born a half-dozen fields away, in Mount Edward.
Strictly speaking, my house is in Lislary. But when I say this to Sligo people, most of them look at me blankly. My postal address is Ballinfull, and my electoral ward is Lissadell North, but the locality is known to locals as Maugherow. Maugherow is actually a tiny village on a hill to the wild west – a church, a school and a huddle of houses – but its name seems to claim everything from Grange in the north to Drumcliffe in the west.
The house where I now live about a third of my time (and escalating) is the birthplace of the developer Tom Gilmartin, whose lethal Maugherow memory caused the establishment of the Mahon tribunal.
Down the road, an ethical half-mile away, is a house once owned by Charles Haughey. It was left to him by a longtime supporter in the 1970s, and there is some dispute locally about whether he ever visited it, although his family spent many a summer there, according to unsworn local testimony. I am toying with the idea of looking to have our road renamed Tribunal Boulevard and opening a bread-and- breakfast establishment to exploit the untapped potential of ethics-and-surf tourism.
The rugged coastline to the west is a much-favoured haunt of water warriors from all over the world. The claim that only Hawaii offers a more challenging swell can seem like an exaggeration until you’ve spent an idle hour watching these guys dice with a watery grave.
Walking from Haughey’s house on the lip of the foreshore towards what I am coming to call home, I am watched by the beady eye of Benbulbin (below), which sits like a slumbering tiger in the distance. It has become, by dint of genius and opportunism, the spirit of Yeats, which surveys Maugherow as though it always has.
There is no single Sligo landscape; perhaps the reason for its largely undiscovered condition is that it contains a multiplicity of distinct landscapes. Of these, Maugherow is perhaps both the wildest and the subtlest. It is a strange collision of farmland and wilderness, seeming to persist on the extremity of civilisation.
When I do not live here I live in Dalkey, in Co Dublin, where the sea also lingers, but I have never heard anything like the roar of the Atlantic here in midwinter.
The people of the Maugherow peninsula oscillate between a desire to shout the glory of their place from the top of the mountain and an equal but opposite determination to keep it to themselves. It is the quintessence of unspoilt, an untamed oasis that lies quietly between the golfing blandness of Rosses Point and the Nordie refugee camp that is Mullaghmore.
Another of the peninsula’s attractions is that phone signals enter here with a reticence that proposes silence as the default condition.Broadband is available at the Texaco station in Grange, a day out away, but not otherwise, so Maugherow is a tweet-free zone. In this, the country of my heart, there are more than enough ghosts to chat to. JOHN WATERS
BELFAST: ‘I don’t want to live somewhere with white picket fences and manicured lawns’
Haunted by the Troubles, caught somewhere between swaggering brio and dark introspection, and painfully proud of its flawed icons – Titanic, George Best – Belfast is a city like no other. At once savage and benign, soberly conformist and wildly bizarre, it’s the kind of place that inspires intense reactions. It’s where I was born and the place I live today.
Let’s get the obvious negative side out of the way first. Yes, Belfast remains, in many ways, a dysfunctional and disconnected city. When the travel writer Paul Theroux visited in the 1980s he said the city had a bad smell and too many fences. It’s a bit more fragrant now, but the number of peace walls, or interfaces, has actually increased – a third of the house-high fences have gone up since the 1994 ceasefires.
Yet I love living here. Belfast is a small, friendly city where you’re always bumping into people you know. There’s a vibrant, irrepressible arts community that is never short of new ideas and projects, often produced on a shoestring, with friends happy to muck in. Belfast has long been known for its dark humour, and you don’t get that distinctively anarchic spirit anywhere else.
Another advantage of the city’s small scale is that the countryside is never far away. I live about two kilometres outside the city centre, but within five minutes’ drive I can be strolling through unspoilt meadows and woodland, blue hills in the distance.
It’s a walkable city too: 20 minutes takes me into the centre, and my kids walk to school across two lovely parks. Yet even the life of the city itself can be unexpectedly beautiful: the two great Harland and Wolff cranes rising against the sky above a slope of red-brick terraced houses; a guerrilla garden, bursting with spring flowers, created in the courtyard of an old RUC station. Somehow these moments of beauty seem all the more poignant and precious because of the city’s terrible past.
We Belfastards, as my son insists on calling us, care about the place, you see.
There are plenty of creature comforts these days. You’re never short of good places to eat and drink, and at the weekend St George’s Market is alive with noise and colour. If shopping is your thing, you’ll be spoiled for choice: despite the economic crisis, Belfast remains a retail nirvana, from the cut-price charms of the Wyse Byse stores to the more elegant offerings at Victoria Square.The truth is, I don’t want to live somewhere bland, with white picket fences and manicured lawns. Belfast is weird and complicated and truculently charming. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. FIONOLA MEREDITH
THALLABAWN, CO MAYO: ‘Birdsong, the rumble of surf and lungfuls of the cleanest air in Ireland’
From the kitchen, a hillside sheep pasture much as it was before the Famine, scattered with glacial boulders and sculpted with huge bolsters of lazy beds, then soil-black, now green. The stream divides the grass in a rocky hollow worn over centuries: we see it glinting and tinkling in the morning sun, more rarely in roaring, white-water floods.
From the living room, Connacht’s highest mountain, Mweelrea, fills most of a window, playing tricks with distance. Snow makes a Japanese etching; a south wind spins clouds from the summit in lenticular meringues. I keep binoculars for armchair climbs to places where I used to go. Beyond it yawns the mouth of the Killary fjord and the far, Tolkien peaks of Connemara.
From my workroom, looking west: a rim of sheep fields to the shore, a long, creamy span of sand, the slow unlacing of white breakers.
Out there, low humps of islands – Inishturk, Inishbofin – and beyond them the ocean horizon: 50km on a good day, but always, spiritually, infinite. Where the sun sets, left to right through the year, marks off the calendar in Technicolor sunsets. Sometimes in winter, early at my desk, I see a full moon move a shining path across the sea, even more bewitching than broadband.
All this without stepping outside. Do that and it’s birdsong and the small talk of commuting ravens, the swish of leaves, the distant rumble of surf and lungfuls of the cleanest air in Ireland. Sometimes, an enveloping silence, miles wide. Also, sudden smallness in this huge amphitheatre: smallness, but also connection with a sensual natural world, a man in his due habitat. You have to take its tempers of rain and wind, and deadening days of drizzle and fog. You need interiority and weatherproof hobbies (a polytunnel!) Not, then, the best place for everyone, thank goodness.
Looking out now, across the hedge (was that another hare?) and stripes of stone walls, two holiday cottages shine white against the sky. There are plenty more along the 12km to Louisburgh, but, spaced between us and the mountain, where the road ends in the sand, most of the new build was for indigenous families, among them grand neighbours and friends.
Some people need the human warmth of towns. On holiday, they seek out crowded beaches, to be sure they are enjoying themselves: ours is huge and deserted for almost all the year, and on fine bank-holiday Sundays we look the other way. It was never, in any case, a strand for sitting down on, even with one’s back to the dunes.
No downsides, then? Remoteness matters now and then – 50km to the hospital, in Castlebar, for instance, or forgetting the thing that wasn’t on the list for the once-a-month stock-up in town.